As the Summer of 1960 drew to a close, and the crisp Autumn winds began to blow across football fields all over the country, the professional football world would soon be turned on end. For the first time in nearly a decade, a new league was preparing to challenge the NFL for players, fans and pro football legitimacy.
The new American Football League made its formal debut on September 9, 1960, when the Denver Broncos defeated the Boston Patriots by a score of 13-10, on a 76-degree evening at Nickerson Field, on the campus of Boston University.
While Topps covered the NFL with its 1960 trading card set, the Frank H. Fleer Corp. made its initial foray into the world of football cards with a strictly AFL issue. Though the cards are rife with issues that would hopefully be caught by modern quality control programs, their lack of overall polish gives the set a certain charm, and is actually representative of the AFL itself in its inaugural season.
Modern collectors can be attracted to the 1960 Fleer set for several reasons, which includes a fine crop of rookie cards, rare high grades, and the overall historical significance of being the AFL’s first trading cards. And while these are all forces that most collectors would find enticing, the 1960 set poses a completely different set of challenges to autographed card collectors.
At just 132 cards, 1960 Fleer would not scare away autograph collectors because of its size. Rather, it is the age and obscurity of certain players that ultimately make this set such a challenging autograph project.
There is only one subset in the 1960 Fleer set; a set of nearly all head coaches. I say “nearly,” because for some unknown reason, Fleer failed to produce a card for Denver Broncos head coach, Frank Filchock, though there are cards for the other seven head coaches; Sammy Baugh – New York Titans, Buster Ramsey – Buffalo Bills, Lou Saban – Boston Patriots, Lou Rymkus – Houston Oilers, Hank Stram – Dallas Texans, Sid Gillman – Los Angeles Chargers, and Eddie Erdelatz – Oakland Raiders.
In terms of signatures, the coaching cards present a host of challenges. Perhaps the least-known of these coaches, Eddie Erdelatz, was only with the Raiders in 1960 and part of 1961, and then died of cancer nearly 50 years ago, in 1966. Rymkus, and Ramsey also lasted very short periods with their respective teams.
Saban, Baugh, Stram and Gillman all are better-known than the first three. Still, most collectors had Baugh sign items pertaining to his playing days, while Lou Saban was better-known for his run with the champion Buffalo Bills in 1964 and 1965. Stram and Gillman are both Hall of Fame coaches, but Stram didn’t receive the honor until very late in his life, which limited his attraction to HOF autograph collectors.
Unfortunately, the waters are even murkier when dealing with the player cards in ’60 Fleer. As this set was released early in the AFL’s initial season, final rosters were not set when the cards were produced. As a result, 42 of the 125 players featured were released during training camp, and never actually played a down in the AFL. These men disappeared from the professional football spotlight and assimilated back into society. This makes it extremely difficult for the autograph collector to find these former players, as modern teams do not keep track of players who were cut during camp, and so these men are not invited back for alumni gatherings, or any of the other events where former football players can typically be found.
As for the other 83 players that actually did make final rosters and played in the AFL, they account for some rather interesting signed cards. Several important AFL figures are represented in ’60 Fleer, including Abner Haynes, Elbert Dubenion, Sherrill Headrick, Billy Cannon, Paul Lowe, Chris Burford, Larry Grantham, Bob Dee, Ron Mix, Jack Kemp, Paul Maguire and Ron Burton, all of whom have their rookie cards in the set. Fortunately for collectors, all but Headrick, Dee, Kemp and Burton are still living, and can be found signing at events throughout the year.
Like most autograph projects, however, the real challenge is not finding cards signed by the stars, but rather the lesser-known players. Couple that with the players who are no longer living, and the difficulty level grows even higher. Jack Larscheid became the first player from the set to pass away, when he died on February 5, 1970. Ray Moss followed in 1976, and Bob Dee in 1979. At the time this article was published, at least 48 of the men represented on cards were deceased, roughly 36% of the overall set.
You can try eBay but as of this writing, there were only ten signed cards available.
Putting together a set such as this is a daunting task, and one that the collector must recognize may never actually be complete. Unfortunately, I believe that thought keeps many potential collectors out of this realm of the hobby. But is the chase for 50-year-old autographed cards really so different from chasing elusive high-grade cards of the same vintage? I tend to think not, though last time I checked, the PSA population reports for graded cards had many more entries than their PSA/DNA counterparts for similar sets.
Perhaps it just takes a different type of collector to tackle autographed sets. Thankfully, I can count myself as being that type.
Todd Tobias is an American Football League author, historian and collector. You can read more about this historic league, and view Todd's collection of autographed cards on his blog and website, Tales from the American Football League.